While we’re waiting on dates for the natural wine fair 2012, let’s take a critical but objective look back at the first one last year.
The natural wine fair was heralded as a big success in Borough Market, London on it’s first outing in May 2011, showcasing natural wines to press, trade and public. But was it really a success for natural wines and their producers? Or was it just a commercial success for the small group of organisers who happen to be importers of the wines on display?
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Was it any good for the reputation of natural wines in general? I have my doubts. I tasted quite a selection of the wines that the importers told me were the best, and I found less than half a dozen that I would consider drinkable! Let alone a pleasure to drink. And the prices of these wines were way out there making them unaffordable for most people. And the consistency and reliability of the wines was a major doubt – very often 2 bottles from the same batch would taste completely different to each other, and I didn’t find a single winemaker who would guarantee his wines wouldn’t be susceptible to early spoilage.
So did the public and press have the same experience as me? And did they come to the same conclusions? Namely that a lot of the natural wines on show were not necessarily nice! Many of the whites in particular were part oxidised, and the producers tell you that is deliberate – that is like making a chocolate biscuit that tastes like sprouts! It isn’t deliberate, they just don’t have the winemaking skills to prevent it happening. Many natural wines are very expensive – again because they are hand made, but also because certain importers are taking a hefty slice for themselves as they are fashionable and in demand. So why would the public choose these wines over standard wines, which are much cheaper, more reliable and generally taste better? This fair didn’t give us any reason to switch to natural wines. In fact it did the opposite.
I’m a big fan of natural wines, and their health benefits so I believe this fair did more damage than good, which is a real shame. The Natural Wine Fair didn’t do anything to improve the reputation of natural wines to me. In fact it did the opposite and made me realise there’s an awful lot of poorly made expensive wine out there selling purely on it’s credentials of being “natural”.
But the irony of all this is that there are several wineries making delicious natural wines which can hold their head up and compete on price AND quality with mainstream wines, but they weren’t at this show! These wines would have shown all the visitors just how good natural wines can be, and that they don’t have to be part oxidised, expensive or short lived.
Domain Viret in the Rhone for example, who’s wines Oz Clark described as “cosmic nectar” on his BBC programme French tour with James May. And Frey Winery from California, the USA’s oldest organic winery who have been winning awards for their natural wines for over 30 years. These wines weren’t at the show but are available to buy retail in the UK. Not only are they completely natural but they are more mainstream in style – without their whites being oxidised. The reds are full flavoured and delicious, and best of all they will keep in good condition for years. Last year I drank some sulphite free Viret reds from 1999 which were in perfect condition and outstanding wines in their own right!
So should it be called “The” Natural Wine Fair? – No, I don’t think so. “A” natural wine fair would be more like it, as it only showcases wines on sale in the UK from the group of the 5 importers that organised it – Yapp Bros, Les Caves de Pyrene, Dynamic Vines, Aubert & Mascoli and Wine Story. Ok, they went to the effort of organising the fair so they want to see some benefit for their businesses, but to imply that they represent all (or possibly just the best) natural wines in the UK isn’t doing natural wines any favours, and isn’t fare to the consumer or to dedicated winemakers who strive to make good quality natural wines. There were a handful of good wines there such as those from Arianna Occhipinti in Sicily, but there weren’t many considering the several hundred wines on show. This fair implied that what was on offer is the best available – well that’s a long way off the mark!
I’m surprised Isabelle Legeron MW who co-organised the event didn’t insist on a wider choice of natural wines to show the diversity and quality that is available from other countries outside northern Europe. It is her self stated mission to promote natural wines wherever possible – or is this just natural wines available to buy through certain importer friends? I’m not naive enough to think that reviewers and critics give all wines an equal chance – there is always an angle from these people – but this is one person who I would have expected to put the bigger picture before commercial gain for her co-organisers. Perhaps I have read the situation wrong? We will learn more when the next natural wine fair is announced when we’ll see if they invite wines that they don’t make a profit on!
This group don’t have the monopoly on natural wines, so please don’t be fooled into thinking everything has to be this expensive or that these funky and often mediocre tasting wines are the norm when it comes to natural wines. If you want good quality, reliable delicious wines made without the addition of any chemicals, they are available in the UK at perfectly reasonable prices from independent specialists like www.goodwineonline.co.uk
To me this was like Volkswagen Audi organising a motor show event and branding it “The Motor Show” then only having their own vehicles present – no BMW, no Mercedes. That means very limited choice for the consumer, and no competition on price either!